I didn’t want to see Hustlers, but my friend gave me two options: Hustlers, or some movie called Peanut Butter Falcon*, so you see I had no real choices. The theater was packed, mostly women in their twenties and thirties, but a fair number of men. A lot of couples, or guys with female companions. Nice going, Hollywood: You made a movie for women that men won’t mind seeing. And Hustlers does have a lot sumptuous female flesh on display, but very little nudity. Isn’t that odd? I caught a glimpse of Lizzo’s bare breasts through a mesh top, but aside from that, I can’t even remember seeing a nipple. This is a striptease film heavy on tease. And you know what I think about that?
I went to a strip club with a buddy once. This was 1998, maybe. I’d become curious about strip clubs, which were becoming mainstream in the bacchanal that led up to century’s end. The place was dim and airless, and guys looked bored, and the spectacle made me blue in a low-down way, like the world was just a sad place and it had been silly of me to pretend otherwise. When this one slightly chubby woman took the stage and none of the guys gave her any money, I almost had a panic attack. “Give her this,” I told my friend, digging in my purse to pull out a five-dollar bill, but he waved away my money and walked to the stage, tucking a couple dollars beneath the taut black string that cut into her fleshy sides, and as he walked away she lay on her back and scissored her legs into a triumphant V.
My buddy felt a little queasy about going to strip clubs. He wasn’t sure if it was puritan shame, or something more like his conscience, an awareness that evaluating naked women from the back of a club and sliding dollar bills into a G-string like he owned a piece of that woman was, at the end of the day, not the man he wanted to be. But who had the power in this transaction? We could argue about that for days, as countless think pieces on the subject have done. Did the man with the money have the power? Did the woman who took the money have the power? Who was conning who?
I grew drunker that night, more pliant, and my friend told me I should give my five-dollar bill to the woman I liked best. I knew exactly who I was going to choose, my God she was glorious. She was twirling around a pole on a side stage, topless in a chocolate bikini bottom, those Lucite skyscraper heels. I walked up to her, not knowing if I was supposed to make eye contact, and I stared at the caramel flesh of her belly, undulating to the beat, and her skin shimmered with sweat and glitter. I was in a baggy blue V-neck, a loose rayon skirt whose hem swished on the floor, my writer-slob uniform, and I think my hand might have been trembling as I tucked the five dollar bill under the string and this magnificent creature snapped it into place.
I had this idea maybe she’d be grateful a woman was watching her. I had this idea she might know something about me I had not yet learned: What I wanted, or what my secret erotic longings might be, or how to get a man on the hook, or what a grown woman’s fingers might feel like traced across your wet lips. I stood there for a while — waiting for what, I don’t know. Finally she leaned over to me. She brought her full lips close to my ears, the purr of her voice as she said, “You don’t have to stand there. You can go sit down if you want.”
I walked back to our table near the back, feeling like I’d gotten the answer on a test wrong. I wasn’t going to cry, but I felt like crying.
“How did it go?” my friend asked. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
“I think I’m ready to leave,” I told him.
To understand how much I liked Hustlers, you have to understand how much I hated Ocean’s Eight. That movie presented itself as a genre-busting all-female caper, but it was just another lousy Hollywood heist movie with a cast that happened to have two X chromosomes. The characters did not remind me of actual women, or endear themselves to me, or even seem interesting. They were phony movie creations played by talented actresses, it happens all the time, but it irked me to see a hackneyed piece of filmmaking frame itself as important. I’m honestly surprised those women didn’t carry pink guns.
Hustlers was a movie about actual women. (Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, who wrote Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.) I recognized these characters’ hopes and bedevilments, the traps of money and sexual allure into which they fell. These women protected each other and competed with each other and betrayed each other like women would. They stabbed each other in the back, and then worried the knife hurt.
In a recent cab ride in New York City, I was subjected to an auto-play screen of the annoying movie reviewer who sounds like people did when talking movies first came out, and he said Hustlers was a boring film that didn’t live up to the hype, and I said out loud, in the cab, “Oh shut up.”
I forget how much I love Jennifer Lopez. Love love. Maybe because her filmography is a list of movies I don’t care to watch, and I mostly encounter her in these red-carpet photos, looking bombshell gorgeous but also steely and ageless, like a sex robot come to life. It had been a long time since I’d watched her body move, her eyes crinkle with a smile or fill with tears. It had been a while since I’d heard that girlish giggle, how it could pivot into that “I’ll cut you” Bronx thing. People rave about her ass, sure. But the full-throated womanliness of Jennifer Lopez is the thing to behold.
Back when I was in high school, trying to spot myself in the anemic actresses on my TV set, I watched Jennifer Lopez bang around the stage of In Living Color, all thick-legged booty-shaking fly girl. These were the Ally McBeal years. Women were locked in a competition to be the thinnest — who started that? But Jennifer Lopez made a strong case for going another way, and I watched over the next decades as this curvy side piece transformed into A-list leading lady, the most famous backside on the silver screen, and the triple threat of movies-TV-Top 40. Here she was in Hustlers, a sex goddess at fifty. At fifty! What deal with the devil had this woman made?
About ten minutes into the film, she struts onstage at the club, based on the real-life Scores in New York, in an outfit that’s more like strategic white tape. In a word: Damn. She works the pole, snakes her bendy torso along the stage. These button-down finance guys are losing their minds, and money falls like confetti on the glossy hard wood so that J-Lo is rolling around on top of it, the whole scene bringing to mind two classic Nineties cinema moments:
Demi Moore rolling on a bed of money in Indecent Proposal (1993) …
… and Demi Moore flinging off her top in Striptease (1996)
Both those movies were about the commodification of women’s bodies, and men’s various attempts to broker or control female sexuality, but both were better known as pop-culture talking points. The first movie introduced the dinner-party question: How much money would it take for you to sleep with a man who wasn’t your husband? The second movie — well, I didn’t see it, and I don’t know anyone who did, but we all watched the trailer. This was back when you had to watch commercials at the gunpoint of a DVR-less world, and I must have seen the Striptease trailer two dozen times. Demi Moore bursting onto the stage in that oversized man’s button down, ripping it open to reveal the jiggle of her (recently enhanced) breasts barely contained by an encrusted gold bikini. She had this carnivorous look, like she was about to chomp into a turkey leg, but instead she swiveled around a pole, and the men in suits leapt to their feet and pumped their fists.
I was twenty-one years old. I stomped around my college campus in Doc Martens and enormous flannel shirts. My wardrobe was entirely the “before” shot in that Demi Moore strip tease. But the trailer suggested the men of my day were ready to see the women of my day rip off our frumpy men’s attire and reveal the thumping splendor of our fleshy feminine landscape — and over the next years, that’s exactly what happened. The late Nineties was an era of thongs, bikini waxes, crop tops, everyone started dressing like they were on MTV’s Spring Break. I was slow to catch this shift. Once I was passing through the mall with a guy I’d been dating when I pointed to the mannequins in the window display of Victoria’s Secret, wearing the comfy full-coverage cotton briefs I bought (five for $20), and I said, “Oh look, I wear that underwear too,” and he said, with a tone I recognized as sarcastic, “And they look just as sexy on those mannequins.”
Ouch. My body had about twenty extra pounds of beer bloat, and I spent much of my mental energy worrying about this. My thighs, my ass, my upper arms, my shins (my shins!). But I’d never worried about my underwear. Around this time, I was digging through that guy’s closet looking for something, and I came across a pair of bikini panties with pink rosebuds. I carried them with thumb and forefinger to the place where he stood, and he explained in a calm voice that a few months before we met, a woman he’d been seeing came to visit from New York, and she left those, and he wasn’t sure what to do with them now.
“You throw them away,” I said, and he tilted his head sideways, like maybe / maybe not. He thought he should mail them back, but he kept forgetting, and if this sounds like a sketchy excuse to hold on to a woman’s rosebud panties, then I am with you, but I wasn’t sure how mad I could or should be. I was trying to understand — how a man could want you, and want another woman at the same time. Was that sexual betrayal, or sexual nature? Men’s desire scared me. It seemed hydra-headed in an uncontainable way. One night, I got very drunk and very jealous at a wine tasting we went to together, where that guy spent the evening in deep conversation with a chic woman wearing one of those plunging dinner jackets that revealed the deep V of her torso, and later, when I made snippy comments about this, he informed me she was a lesbian. Oh.
But I didn’t like losing to anyone. I wanted to be the most fascinating and sexy and devastating woman in the room. And back then it felt like every room I entered had the equivalent of a Demi Moore ripping off her white button-down to reveal eye-popping assets, and being bested by these other women — in either the sexual or intellectual realm — made me feel small, and stumpy, and pointless, and I spent a lot of those years responding to this crisis of my own value by drinking too much or trying to make myself funnier, smarter, hotter, better. It worked, and it never worked at all. That guy ended up leaving me after six months, and the next woman he dated was a former stripper who worked at his restaurant. All my life I’d battled beauty queens and drill team captains and cheerleaders, the cliched version of the coveted woman, and now I had to battle with strippers, and they were world-weary and dark and cool, and it wasn’t fair.
I seem to have gone off-topic. Where was I going with this? Let me say it this way. I cannot separate any disapproval of stripping from my sense of failure that I didn’t have goods. Any critique I have of the profession must be considered alongside an envy that I was not one of those women. If my body had looked like Demi Moore’s, if I had needed the money — would I have learned the pole, too? I can’t tell you. It’s very easy to hold the moral high ground on stripping when you are well aware no club was ever going to hire you.
I actually cried in Hustlers. Not much, but a little bit, toward the end. It spoke to the part of me that feels a blistering need for male desire, but a powerlessness to control it or even leverage that attention to heal the blasted-out hole in me that needs filling. It spoke to the part of me that wants to care-take others, or can’t stop worrying about someone else, even after they’ve hurt me. Do men understand this? Am I being gender essentialist when I say this is a movie for women? (Is being gender essentialist really so bad?) I’m not saying men won’t like Hustlers, I’m saying if a man didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be surprised. The way nobody would be surprised if I didn’t like a sports movie, or some film about a botched military strike. I do like war movies, but some part of me disengages. Not my battle. Not my challenge. Not me. I often find the most boring part of a film to be the fighting, the car chase, the wordless conflict. Not long ago, I saw the latest Avengers movie, and I loved it, but I kept nodding off during the ridiculous twenty-minute fight sequence near the end. It was just visual white noise to me. But Hustlers kept me riveted. It’s not a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, but it had the texture of a story told right. Several former strippers have said as much.
Back when I was running the personal essays section at Salon, I got a number of essays from strippers. There was this one woman, mid-twenties, who wrote about her heroin addiction. She could turn a phrase, she had a pyrotechnic quality with language, she sent me a fascinating opening scene of nodding out on the pole. I wrote her back, we began a correspondence — about drugs, about women’s bodies, about sobriety, and why she wanted it, but fucking didn’t want it at all — and I told her this was the beginning of a great essay, but I was pretty sure she was going to have to get clean to write the rest of it. She told me maybe / maybe not, but she was going to try to write it un-sober. Over the next two years, she wrote me about every four to six months, explaining why she hadn’t finished the piece, apologizing, wondering if I’d forgotten her (I never did), submitting versions that were drug-induced blather, chastising herself for not getting her shit together. I felt relief every time I saw her name in my inbox, because it meant she was still out there. She had not given up.
I lost my Salon email address when I left the job four years ago, so if she ever wrote me again, I would not know it. This bothers me — a stream of love, broken. I think about her from time to time, I wonder where she is, and on the off-chance she is reading this, please email me. You don’t have to write the rest of that essay. I just want to know you’re OK.
*I’ve been informed that Peanut Butter Falcon is an excellent movie, apologies for my dismissal, but I stand by my knee-jerk assessment that it’s a bad name for a movie.